Portal to success: Cowgirls continue to utilize transfer portal to draw high-caliber talent to Stillwater

Jason Elmquist/Stillwater News Press Oklahoma State’s Hayley Busby, a University of Virginia transfer, hits a home run during last year’s Super Regional against Texas at Cowgirl Softball Stadium.

Kenny Gajewski was eating dinner with his wife when he suddenly received a celebratory FaceTime call from the entire Oklahoma State softball team.

The Cowgirls were gathered around Miranda Elish, a two-time All-American pitcher who most recently played at the University of Texas. When they knew about her decision, they urged her to share the news with Gajewski while they were all together, so she included them in her announcement.

Elish was joining them at OSU for her last year of eligibility.

Hayley Busby, who was next to Elish as she told Gajewski, said some of the Cowgirls bet that the heartfelt moment would make him cry. Although their coach didn’t shed any tears in the middle of his dinner date, the uniqueness of the group call stood out to him. His team was already embracing Elish.

“We were like, ‘This is your family now,’” Busby said. “... It was a really cool moment just to kind of see how excited she was for that, but not even just her, everybody on the team.”

Elish, who will compete with the Cowgirls during the spring season, is the latest addition to a team that has bolstered its roster with renowned talent from the NCAA transfer portal. Since its inception in October 2018, this virtual hub for student-athletes on the move has altered the landscape of college softball. Although Gajewski consistently relies on the active pipeline from in-state high schools to Stillwater, the portal provides a bonus strategy for recruiting, expanding OSU’s base across the nation.

Along with landing coveted recruit Elish, the Cowgirls recently picked up first baseman Morgyn Wynne from Kansas and pitcher Morgan Day from Illinois State, two athletes who are in Stillwater for the fall season. This brings the Cowgirls’ number of transfers to four, as record-setting slugger Busby has played at OSU since arriving from Virginia for her junior year.

It’s a continual trend. During the past spring, the Cowgirls’ roster included seven transfers: graduate students Alysen Febrey, Jordan Doggett, Carrie Eberle and Reagan Wright, as well as then-seniors Busby, Gabby Sprang and junior college transfer Shalee Brantley.

After welcoming this year’s cohort of transfers to OSU, Busby has been able to identify the reason elite softball players can easily mesh with the team when they arrive in Stillwater: the Cowgirls focus on team goals more than themselves.

“I’ve gotten to see it this past year when we got Morgyn and Morgan and now Miranda, just how much these transfers can help our team and help our program,” Busby said. “And the fact that we’re able to sit here with open arms instead of being like, ‘Well, I don’t want them to come here because they’re gonna take my spot.’ … Instead, it’s, ‘Hey, they’re coming here, and they’re gonna make me better, but they’re also gonna make this program better.’”

The introduction of new faces might mean no one is guaranteed to keep a starting role, but the competition often draws teammates together instead of turning them against one other.

This approach has worked, sending the Cowgirls to the 2021 College World Series and feeding a cycle. Transfers have helped create championship-caliber squads, which have drawn in highly regarded athletes from other universities.

Samantha Show, one of the first Cowgirl stars to emerge from the portal, arrived at OSU with multiple accolades from her first three seasons at Texas A&M. Since then, she’s launched a professional softball career, and so has Carrie Eberle, who was named ACC Pitcher of the Year before switching from Virginia Tech to OSU.

Their stories are inspiring student-athletes across the country to buy into what the Cowgirls have built. Day said this was one of multiple factors that made OSU appeal to her.

“One thing was the successful track record that Coach Gajewski and the program has had here and the success with transfers,” Day said. “So as a transfer, that initially attracted me, just knowing that there’s a culture here that is so successful with transfers and welcomes them in right away.”

Like many other student-athletes, Day is utilizing her extra year of eligibility. After the COVID-19 pandemic cut the spring 2020 season short, all Division 1 softball players were granted an additional year to compete, creating a portal boom as many gained interest in furthering their college careers at new destinations.

This was the case for Elish, who opted out of the 2021 season because of the pandemic. Elish had already switched schools once, joining the Longhorns after spending her first two seasons at Oregon, but a fifth year gave her the opportunity to experience a third program.

Wynne, a former Big 12 All-Freshman selection, is entering her true senior season, meaning she could potentially play for OSU next year if she chooses to use her extra eligibility with the Cowgirls.

Although each transfer brings at least three years of experience to OSU, past success can’t automatically result in playing time. When former top-ranked recruit Elish arrives in Stillwater, Gajewski plans to have the same standards for her – and the other transfers – as he has for everyone else.

The Cowgirls share his high expectations for new teammates.

“They’re competitive people,” Gajewski said. “That’s why we’ve been able to do what we’ve done, and so they’re gonna embrace (Elish), but they’re also gonna keep her accountable. She’s not gonna walk in here and just take over. She’s gonna have to earn that.”

As interconference transfers, Elish and Wynne are already familiar with this competitiveness that defines the Cowgirls.

They faced OSU during intense Big 12 matchups, but after Elish and Wynne entered the portal, the Cowgirls put the rivalries aside to welcome their potential new teammates. Wynne said Gajewski quickly connected with her, and this was one of the reasons she chose OSU.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not even here yet, haven’t even signed anything, and I feel like I’m on this team and I feel like that’s where I’m going to be,’” Wynne said.

In Elish’s case, Gajewski didn’t have to reach out to her. She contacted him, and it didn’t take long for her to choose OSU. Busby said Elish gave everyone a hint about her decision when she purchased some OSU shirts before she ever made the FaceTime call, so Gajewski already had a feeling about her decision.

Elish’s initiative to inquire about OSU is a sign of what the program has become, but Gajewski doesn’t want progress to stop there. The next challenge is signing a greater number of top recruits out of high school instead of waiting for their names to pop up in the portal.

“That’s starting to turn here,” Gajewski said. “We’ll always have our eyes on the portal, but you hope that you can get those kids as freshmen to come in so you get four years with those kids.”

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